Digging in the Details

NMU senior Kayley Porta spent last summer solving mysteries. What kinds of substances can be detected in a blood sample? How can you salvage a badly damaged serial number on a gun in order to trace its owner? How is a DNA sample matched to an individual? As an intern at the Milwaukee Crime Laboratory, the forensic biochemistry major and NMU Criminal Justice Department student receptionist got an insider’s view of the many facets and intricacies of investigating and solving crimes.


Northern Magazine: What does the Milwaukee Crime Laboratory do?


Kayley Porta: Their main purpose is to process evidence that is brought in by local, state or federal investigators or police officers. The Toxicology Department, where I worked, had two people employed, but the Milwaukee Crime Laboratory has many people working in all of their departments in a lot of different jobs. They can include fingerprint technicians to analyze fingerprints, photographers to photograph evidence, toxicologists who test for substances in blood or other bodily fluids, firearms and tool mark examiners who analyze guns and other various weapons or tools, and DNA analysts who test for DNA matches on evidence. There are also drug examiners that identify and can quantify amounts of illegal drugs and trace chemistry examiners that analyze hair, glass, fibers and other substances. 


Mass Spec

NM: What kinds of things did you do there?


KP: As part of the internship we got to see a presentation or worked with each of the departments in the Crime Laboratory. I had the chance to recover fingerprints, make bullet casing comparisons, identify different drugs with different processes, test blood samples for alcohol, screen blood or other bodily fluids for drugs and observe how testimony occurs for different laboratory examiners. 


For recovering fingerprints we mostly used a superglue fuming method, where the vapors of cyanoacrylate (found in superglue) reacts with and adheres to the oils in a fingerprint. The print can then be dyed or dusted with black, white or fluorescent powders to make the print more visible. Fingerprints are entered into AFIS, the national Automated Fingerprint Identification System. 


I also worked on a project for a specific instrument. I was figuring out which volatile compounds a specific Headspace Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer could detect. You can find a variety of compounds using these methods. In the crime lab they are often used to detect alcohol (ethanol), methanol and ethylene glycol in blood or other bodily fluids or used to determine an unknown drug or substance. 


NM: Was working in the lab different than what you thought it would be or what people might see on TV?


KP: A lot of times on TV there is one person processing all types of evidence in a laboratory while also investigating the case and collecting the evidence. Normally people that work in the laboratory don’t collect the evidence or necessarily know what’s going on with that specific case. One person also doesn’t analyze all the evidence that comes through a crime laboratory. They also show laboratory work being done extremely fast and don’t really show how much of a process some things are in a laboratory. Going into my internship I knew it wasn’t going to be like it was on TV but I didn’t really know what to expect either. It was very different than how TV portrays it. 


NM: How did you get interested in forensic biochemistry?


KP: I actually planned to go into nursing, but after putting some thought into my potential career I knew I wanted to be more of a laboratory scientist. I changed my major to clinical laboratory science and attended freshmen orientation. One student on the orientation staff was a forensic biochemistry major and I had never heard of that major before. The clinical laboratory classes were in the range of what I wanted to do but not exactly a right fit. I loved my freshman chemistry class, and I noticed the department had the forensic biochemistry degree and it finally clicked that was the major for me. 


NM: Did any of your NMU classes prepare you for some of the tasks you performed at the Crime Lab?


KP: My chemistry and biology classes definitely prepared me for the internship, and mostly the courses that included a laboratory portion, such as cell and molecular biology and organic chemistry. 


NM: I understand there was a cost involved in the internship and the NMU Foundation’s Northern Fund was able to help. 


KP: I wasn’t able to obtain any financial support for the credits NMU required to do the internship. The internship was unpaid and I had to relocate to Milwaukee for the summer. The NMU Foundation Northern Fund helped pay for the tuition of the four credit course. I wouldn’t have been able to participate without the help of the Northern Foundation Fund or Professor Marsha Lucas. Marsha actually looked into trying to find a way to fund the credits while I informed the lab I couldn’t do the internship because of financial issues. Thanks to Marsha and the Northern Fund I was able to do it. I would like to thank everyone, including my professors, NMU’s Foundation and my family [parents Dawn ’02 BS and David; her sister Mary is also an NMU student], that made this opportunity possible for me.


NM: What did the experience mean to you?


KP: This experience means the world to me. I was able to get the experience I needed in a competitive career field. It helped me believe in myself a lot more and gave me the confidence to pursue all my goals of the future without holding back. It’s important to take the opportunity when it is given to you because you don’t know when you’ll get that chance again.


Here's how The Northern Fund helps students like Kayley achieve their goals.


Milwaukee crime lab internship.


Money for credit hours and associated costs.


Without the personal means to cover the expense, she could miss out on this opportunity.


Donations made to The Northern Fund.

Donations to The Northern Fund support the everyday needs of students to pursue their goals. From research and career-building experiences to improved learning environments, The Northern Fund exists for donors to meet needs that emerge across campus each year.